The Writing Office that Keeps Me in SF

NOTE: This is from a personal column series for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon.

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Our exact ranking might change depending on the report, but we’re usually in the number one or number two spot alongside New York.

This comes as no surprise to anyone living here. Just in my immediate vicinity, someone bought an old house across the street for more than $2 million just so they could tear it down and build a new house on the tiny property. Just a block away, brand new one-bedroom apartments had sold for $1 million each. My husband and I currently rent an apartment that we could not afford to buy.

According to a survey released this month by online apartment rental site Apartment List, the median rent for a two-bedroom unit is, $3,010 a month, compared to $2,470 in New York or $1,250 in Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, my husband regularly talks about moving to another city. The temptation is strong to live somewhere, anywhere, where we could live two or three times as well for the same amount of money.

So far, however, I have resisted for one reason: my writing community.

Five years ago when I left the Wall Street Journal to write a book about Apple, my agent asked me where I planned to write it. “I don’t know,” I told him uneasily. After 15 years of commuting to an office, I wasn’t sure I could handle the lack of structure at home.

That’s when my agent connected me to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a cooperative workplace for journalists, novelists, poets, essayists, screenwriters and more. The Grotto, as we call it, was co-founded in 1994, years before the idea of co-working spaces became popular.

“We were built around this idea that when you were ready to quit that job, you needed structure, community, resources and crowd intelligence,” my colleague and Grotto co-founder Ethan Watters explained to me. He and two other writers were inspired by arts communities where artists rented studio space together.

The initial office was a Victorian house with six bedrooms, one for each of the first members. They went through two more locations, including a legendary one above a dog and cat hospital before they moved into the current space about 11 years ago.

The rooftop “terrace” at the old Grotto above a dog and cat hospital

Today there are 50 active members and over 100 affiliated members. Some of our best known alumni include best-selling author Mary Roach, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles, and Noah Holly, a screenwriter and producer known for hit TV series such as Bones, Fargo and Legion. Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants, which became a movie starring George Clooney, had also been a member. Many of them continue to stay connected to the community and have been amazing resources for us.

For about $450 a month, I have a private office with a big window and Internet access. Some of my colleagues, who share an office, pay not much more than the $200 a month that the founders paid 22 years ago. Part of the founders’ vision had been to keep it as affordable as possible for writers, most of whom couldn’t afford the fancy co-working offices geared toward the tech industry. I love that I can close my door when I need privacy.

When I first joined the Grotto, I mostly kept to myself partly because I was on a tight deadline to finish my book, but also because I was overwhelmed by such a mixed group of writers. I had spent nearly fifteen years in newsrooms, and most of the writers I knew were other journalists. I didn’t know how to talk to novelists or essayists. I couldn’t imagine writing in those genres. I couldn’t relate to them. Every day around lunchtime, writers would emerge from their offices to eat together in a big meeting room, but I rarely joined them.

Bit by bit though, I got sucked in. It started with Fred Vogelstein, another tech journalist who worked for Wired magazine. It turned out that he was also working on a book about Apple and Google, and we started dropping by each other’s offices to commiserate. When my publisher demanded that I change the focus of my book from Apple’s past to the company’s future, he pulled me out of my panicky state and helped me come up with a game plan.

My office at the Grotto

My new friends and colleagues were a creative and energetic bunch, and they were constantly asking about what I was working on. Initially, my response was always related to my book, but when I asked about their work, they would tell me about their work on essays, news articles, a new book idea, or even a screenplay. Most had multiple projects going across multiple genres. Some of them edited for client projects on the side. Others taught writing at the Grotto or at some of the colleges and universities in the area. I learned for the first time that I didn’t have to exclusively identify as a journalist.

When my book came out, and its thesis — that Apple would never be the same company as it used to be under Steve Jobs — angered hoards of Apple fans, colleagues I didn’t even know rallied around me and publicly defended me. One shared a story about a famous writer who punched a critic at an awards ceremony in London. Another told me about a different writer who spent years working on a book that only sold 15 copies. I learned that I was part of a big resilient network that had collectively experienced just about every up and down there is in a writer’s career.

Of course, there were some drawbacks compared to a traditional corporate environment. The office was equipped with Wi-Fi, but I had to furnish my own office with a desk, chair, bookshelves, printers and anything else I wanted. We have a cleaning woman who came by a few times a week, but there was no office manager, which meant that every member had chores, just like at home. My initial chore was to wipe down the kitchen counters and generally make sure that the kitchen was in decent shape. Then I became a member of the party committee, which was tasked with organizing a few community-wide events every year. Now I’m the librarian, in charge of managing the many books we have. In one bookcase, we display the dozens of books that were written by past and present Grotto members.

My career today is made up by a hodge-podge of different activities, reflecting the Grotto’s influence. Most of my time is spent working on a new book idea that I’m developing, but I have ventured into writing essays over the last couple of years. In addition to my work teaching inmates journalism at San Quentin State Prison, I also sometimes teach classes at the Grotto and University of California, Berkeley. I still identify as a journalist, but I’ve also grown curious about other writing genres like fiction and poetry. Looking back, I’m amazed at how my writing world has expanded.

Ethan told me that was what the Grotto was meant to do, adding that many writers before me had done the same. “We resolutely wanted to embrace all forms of narrative and not put any form above the other in literary hierarchy,” he said.

Po Bronson, a best-selling author and another Grotto co-founder, said he was proud of the way that the community has evolved with the changes in the writing field. Members today not only write, but some host podcasts or perform their stories on stage. As corporations have woken up to the power of narrative storytelling, others have taken on freelance work writing for some of them. A few have ventured into screenwriting. Almost everyone is active on social media.

Sometimes when my husband’s urge to move is really strong, he tries to persuade me by arguing that there has to be Grotto-like communities in other cities. “If not, you could create one,” he says to me.

Realistically, I know that’s much easier to say than to do. Having a place like the Grotto relies on a core group of committed, established writers with the credibility to draw others in. It also requires at least one person, who is willing to take on the huge financial commitment of renting office space. That’s not so easy when the community is made up of writers in a struggling industry.

When I asked Ethan and Po if they knew of Grotto-like offices elsewhere in the country, they named a few in Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles and New York, but most of them were communities with communal writing spaces. None offered the combination of community and individual offices.

The Grotto is rare and unique. We members are lucky to have it in San Francisco, but my biggest question today is “For how long?”

When the Grotto first opened its doors, the city was a vibrant scene for all kinds of artists. Bit by bit, however, friends and colleagues have left the city as they seek a more affordable quality of life. Office rent has also crept up. As more and more writers struggle to make a living and as San Francisco’s cost of living rises, I worry about whether I will still have a place to work in the future, a reason to continue to call San Francisco my home.